Monday, November 21, 2011

"System Error"

I am eating lunch at Mao’s Kitchen in Venice. By my standards, it’s a successful operation. My meal was tasty, and I didn’t spill anything on my clothes. I have a tendency to do that, owing to a flabby lower lip (I hold nothing back on this blog). The food enters my mouth, after which, invariably, some errant morsels dribble off my relaxed lower lip, and onto my shirt. I am seriously overdue for some lip aerobics.

I pay the bill with a credit card. Moments later, the waitress returns, informing me that my card has been rejected. The unspoken word “deadbeat” lurks punitively beneath the surface. A tattooed waitress is looking down on me.

I pay with another card, and I leave, wondering why my original had been turned down. When I get home, there’s a phone message left while I was lunching, informing me that, due to “suspicious activity” on my account, my credit card had been cancelled.

This situation has arisen a number of times before, in fact, three times in the past year. On the other two occasions, however, the credit card company informed me that my account had been suspended ahead of time, rather than dooming me to a waitress’s contempt.

I immediately call “Customer Service”, speaking to a sympathetic representative name Darlene. Darlene informs me that, once again, credit card criminals had hacked into my account, and were running up charges like drunken sailors on a “Shore Leave” shopping spree.

Darlene then rattles off a list of purchases, to confirm whether or not I had made them, among them, four thousand dollars worth of charges at Macy’s in New York City, and a five thousand dollar bill at an electronics store in Connecticut. I live in California. I have not visited New York City in four years, and have not been to Connecticut in twenty.

Satisfied that the charges were not mine, Darlene deleted them from my bill. She then confirmed that my former credit card account was officially closed, and that a replacement card would be “overnighted” to me in two days. Why it takes two days to “overnight” something, I did not go into. I simply opined that the illegal hackers seemed to be smarter than the credit card company, and I left it at that.

Having your credit card cancelled is a giant pain in the ass. You have to call all the businesses that have your card number on file, and inform them of the new number. (During the intervening period, not only had Mao’s Kitchen had a problem, but a Santa Monica flower store where, unbeknownst of the situation, Dr. M had ordered some flowers, and a synagogue where I'd mail ordered High Holidays tickets, had also had the card rejected. In very short order, the city I live in, plus God, thought we were deadbeats.

When my new credit card arrives, the first call I make is to MEDCO, a mail order pharmacy affiliated with the Writers Guild Health Plan. MEDCO has a service that automatically sends me refills of prescriptions when I’m running low, and if they have a now invalid card number on file, there is going to be trouble, the extreme version being,

No pills. Dead.

When I call MEDCO, I am greeted by a cheerful automated voice, asking me how she can help. I say, “New credit card number.” The automated voice cheerfully says, “Okay. I can help you with that. But to do so, I will need to ask you some questions, in order to access your records. First: Tell me your date of birth.

I say, “February Fourth, 1945.”

The cheerful automated voice replies,

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that February Fourth, 1944?”


“Sorry. Let me try that again.”

And around we go again.

“Tell me your date of birth.”

“February Fourth, 1945.”

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that March Twelfth, 1945?”


“Sorry. Let me try that again.”

And yet a third time:

“Tell me your date of birth.”

“February Fourth, 1945.”

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that April Nineteenth, 1947?”

It is starting to become funny. I am tempted to keep going, just to see how much worse things can get.

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that August the Twenty-Third, 1648?”

Sensing the futility, however, the cheerful automated voice cuts her losses and refers me to a live Customer Services Representative, and the party is over.

I saw a movie once called Westworld (1973), about a “Dude Ranch” where all the “Bad Guys” are robots, and the visiting guests can have “gunfights” with them and shoot them down. The trouble arises when, due to some mechanical breakdown, the “Bad Guys’” programming gets messed up, and they start gunning down the guests.

The movie’s message was clear: Technology cannot be relied upon.

The question is,

Do we have any choice.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; thankfully when things go wrong with technology we don't get the same result as the poor schmucks in "Westworld" did. That you've had your account hacked so many times is odd. I wonder what the average and maximum are...


Mac said...

I've had my account hacked. Someone went crazy at a wholesale booze outlet - like crates of whisky.
What astonished me was how blase the credit card co. were about it - a friend with some experience in that line told me that apparently their profits are so staggeringly huge, fraud is just an ongoing minor cost to them - most of it not worth investigating.
Or was, anyway - this was before the credit crunch/meltdown/whatever it's called.